Yesterday was a big day for astronomers – no, it was a HUGE day! A comet called “Siding Spring” whooshed past Mars, so close – less than 1/3 of the distance from Earth to the Moon, which is sphincter-tighteningly close in astronomical terms! – that the international fleet of space-probes currently studying and exploring the red Planet had to take cover behind it, in order to avoid what scientists feared might be a potential sand-blasting from dust hissing off the comet’s nucleus.
It was a crazy day for those of us following events here on Earth, too. Like many in the space enthusiast and amateur astronomical community I spent most of yesterday sat with my laptop on my knee, following developments on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere. The fly-bu happened during broad daylight for those of us up here in the northern hemisphere, so we had no chance of seeing it in our sky. But as we sat drinking our cuppas and watching our computer, phone and tablet screens, way, way beneath our feet, down in the southern hemisphere, amateur astronomers in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere had front row seats for the event and were desperately trying to photograph the comet as it closed in on Mars. Many struggled to capture the faint, fuzzy light of the comet against the dazzling bright glare from Mars, but some pulled it off and took beautiful portraits of Comet Siding Spring and Mars in the same field of view, the comet looking like a tiny, tapering chalk smudge close to the brilliant beacon of Mars.
But even though they couldn’t see Mars and its cometary visitor shining in their sky, northern hemisphere astronomers were still able to “see” and even image the pair using the many remote telescopes now available. Simon White, member of my own astronomical society, the Eddington Astronomical Society, just managed to grab this beautiful image before the remote telescope he was using was unable to follow the comet any further…
Simon told me more about his excellent image in an email:
The best image I saw was taken by Nick Howes and Ron Wodask , and soon after he had posted it online it was, quite rightly, spreading around the world, Shared and reTweeted on Facebook and Twitter countless thousands of times. Here it is…
Details: Images of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring and Mars taken by N.Howes/R.Wodaski/Tzen Muan Foundation from the Tzec Muan E180/FSQ106 and TOA150 telescopes at Siding Spring Australia on 19th Oct 2014
As I said, Nick and Ron’s photo – which they only managed to take after overcoming a series of potentially devastating technical problems – spread around the world faster than a picture of a kitten sleeping on Kim Kardashian’s backside, and was featured on websites, blogs, and news broadcasts too many times to count! But the images everyone was waiting to see were the ones being taken from Mars itself – by the orbiters waltzing around it, and the rovers down on its surface.
Many months ago, soon after calculations showed that Siding Spring would pass close to Mars (early calculations suggested it might even hit Mars!) NASA realised that it had an opportunity to study the comet with many instruments and cameras already at Mars, i.e. the hardware being carried by its orbiters and rovers. It was like having a comet mission handed to them for free! So by the time SS flew past Mars yesterday NASA was ready, and cameras in orbit high above and down on the surface of Mars turned towards Siding Spring. While we watched from here on Earth, the science teams behind each probe were hoping their beloved spacecraft would take a genuine “once in a lifetime” image of a comet passing the Red Planet. And, I think it’s fair to say, although they’d never admit it, each one was secretly hoping to be the first to get their images out…
So when I got up this morning at just before 6am, and went online, the first thing I did was check for any overnight news about the success, or failure, of The Terran Exploration Fleet to capture images of Comet Siding Spring. There was nothing. But it was still early, after all, so I set about doing other stuff. And then, around eleven o’clock, I saw it…
There it is, look! The comet, photographed from the surface of Mars! They did it! A rover took an image of Comet Siding Spring from the surface of Mars!
But which rover?
Well, I think most people were expecting that out of the two rovers currently exploring Mars, Curiosity would be the only one to photograph the comet. After all, it is a nuclear-powered, tractor-wheeled, laser-toting, Hellboy-armed beast of a machine, with kick ass cameras and computers. And it may yet turn out that MSL did manage to get photos. But that image was taken by our gal, Opportunity.
Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that just fantastic?? After roving across Mars for more than ten years – on an epic, history-making journey which has seen her drive to, into and back out of craters, climb and descend hills, discover and study meteorites and much, much more – from high up on the rim of Endeavour Crater, her wheels weary, her shoulder stiff and her computers straining, Oppy lifted her tired eyes off the ground and looked to the sky, seeking out a comet in the pre-dawn sky. And took its picture.
My admiration for Oppy and the men and women who keep her roving across Mars is well known (the fact that this blog is still going after all these years is a bit of a clue!) but really they’ve excelled themselves this time, and Oppy has shown again what a remarkable machine she is. And shows we, ourselves, aren’t that bad either, when we put our minds to it. When we’re not being stupid apes.
The world has a lot of problems at the moment. The Middle East is a big, fat barrel of gunpowder that is rolls relentlessly between one fire and the next by murderers and madmen; terrible disease is ravaging Africa, and is just one torn rubber glove or one unmonitored airplane journey away from spreading wider; poverty and famine mean many millions of people go to bed and wake up starving and in misery; religious fundamentalism is spreading like a filthy, bloody tsunami across large parts of the world; in dusty cellars in countless countries, working in the shadows, people are hunched over benches building bombs, desperate to turn innocent men, women and children into splashes of lasagne spattered across pavements and walls. Any aliens monitoring us from above would be forgiven for thinking that we’re a savage, ignorant, bloodthirsty species not worth making First Contact with – and our planet might actually be worth quarantining for the next million years, just in case we’re tempted to spread our savagery to the stars.
But as stupid as we are, we are, at heart, a good and kind race. For every murderous, wire-twisting bomb-maker hiding in a cellar there are a million exhausted doctors or nurses fighting to save lives; for every black-masked and -hooded religious lunatic ready to saw the head off an innocent hostage, there is a volunteer handing out food and water to strangers in need, far away from their own home; for every science-fearing fundamentalist determined to stop young girls from going to school, there is a young teacher standing at the front of a bullet-riddled classroom, even more determined to teach those same young girls physics, maths and astronomy.
And we are capable of greatness too. Those same aliens looking down on us from high above will have seen an example of that today. They’ll have seen that, after hundreds – thousands – of years of fearing the arrival of a comet in our sky, of blaming them for the wars, disasters and murders we ourselves were responsible for, we swallowed our fear and, using one of our incredible machines, took a picture of one from our neighbouring world as it dashed by. That’s an incredible thing.
That’s a great thing.